Book Review: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Copyright John Berendt 1994

First published in Great Britain by Chatto & Windus Ltd 1994

Hardcover, 400 pages

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Shots rang out in Savannah’s grandest mansion in the misty,early morning hours of May 2, 1981.  Was it murder or self-defense?  For nearly a decade, the shooting and its aftermath reverberated throughout this hauntingly beautiful city of moss-hung oaks and shaded squares.  John Berendt’s sharply observed, suspenseful, and witty narrative reads like a thoroughly engrossing novel, and yet it is a work of nonfiction.  Berendt skillfully interweaves a hugely entertaining first-person account of life in this isolated remnant of the Old South with the unpredictable twists and turns of a landmark murder case.

It is a spellbinding story peopled by a gallery of remarkable characters: the well-bred society ladies of the Married Woman’s Card Club; the turbulent young redneck gigolo; the hapless recluse who owns a bottle of poison so powerful it could kill every man, woman, and child in Savannah; the aging and profane Southern belle who is the “soul of pampered self-absorption”; the uproariously funny black drag queen; the acerbic and arrogant antiques dealer; the sweet-talking, piano-playing con artist; young blacks dancing the minuet at the black debutante ball; and Minerva, the voodoo priestess who works her magic in the graveyard at midnight.  These and other Savannahians act as a Greek chorus, with Berendt revealing the alliances, hostilities, and intrigues that thrive in a town where everyone knows everyone else.

For some reason, lately I’ve been thinking about this book which I first read many years ago (probably in the late 1990s).  I have a very well-used copy of the paperback edition on my bookshelf and for some reason I always look at it fondly when considering something to re-read.  I think it’s because I just love the characters in the book.  As the hardcover jacket blurb articulates so well, this book is a story about characters just as much as it is a story about murder.  And these aren’t just your average run of the mill characters!  These are such an assortment of odd and outlandish characters that it seems impossible that they could all fit together between 400 pages of the hardcover edition, but Mr. Berendt brilliantly weaves them all into the same story under the umbrella of the best character of all – Savannah itself.

I might be getting a bit poetic here, but I really just love books like this; it’s unique, sharp and enthralling.  It made me want to visit Savannah desperately.

I’ve read some reviewers say they found it slow to get going, which I can understand as it really isn’t totally about the murder mystery itself.  Rather we have to follow the author as he meets and discovers the intertwined perspectives and stories of many different people.

This is a great book to completely get lost in – for most of us, it is a world so foreign from our everyday (usually humdrum) lives that it truly is a little escape from reality – even though it is apparently based on a true story.  If you’re looking for a straight-up murder mystery with twists and turns and a climax where the killer and the main character face each other down in a final stand-off, you should look elsewhere.  But if you’re really just interested in exploring a fascinating and absurd Southern town with a bit of juicy murder drama thrown in, than I highly recommend this book.

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